“Warm Prickly” by Ben Haravitch (Benny Bleu)
Ben Haravitch (Benny Bleu) is one of the most warm, down-to-earth, kind, and authentic people I’ve ever met. I’ve heard him described as a “great guy,” a “sweetheart,” and “a dude.” All of these sentiments I agree with.
At this moment, you might be thinking to yourself: “Wait, is this an album review?” Yes, it is. I know these typically don’t start with a declaration of the artist’s personality or character, but I thought it was appropriate, give two things:
- “Warm Prickly” is a specific kind of character – those who might be gruff, standoffish, brusque – but will always be there to care for and to help you.
- This album is a perfect distillation of Ben’s character. Most of these songs are sad, and touch on topics that range from daunting, to heartbreak, to feeling shame about treating those different than us worse than we would treat ourselves, told through an American tall tale, sadness about no longer being able to take care of a friend who’s gone too far, or an allegory about homelessness and a porcupine. By the way, the “strung out but loveable” porcupine on the cover is a great illustration from Jeff Moores.
But through all of that, there is a joy, warm, and hominess that comes from listening to these. Part of it is Ben’s journey in creating a sound that truly reflects the Appalachian Mountain Range through folk music, and the other part is Ben just being a good man. Or, a dude. Nothing is more satisfying than playing this album with the windows down in the Finger Lakes. It just feels right.
A quick moment on the personnel:
Many of these tunes feature Ben overdubbed, and he’s singing, playing guitar, banjo, resonator banjo (a resonator guitar tuned like a banjo), fiddle, and bass. All are skillfully done. Also on the album are his longtime friends Michael Brown, drums, the great G. Elwyn (that G. Elwyn from the Wilderness Family and the Colorblind James Experience) picks the dobro and slide guitar.He’s Brothers Blue compatriots chip in too: Matt Sperber (Matty Bleu) sings along on Maddy-O and Lonesome Hill, and Charlie Coughlin (Charlie Bleu) fiddles and plays mandolin on “Cluck Old Hen.”
Another quick note on the recording & mixing:
Having listened to a three of Ben’s previous recording and mixing efforts: “Ghost Town” and “Big Eyed Rabbit” by The Brothers Blue, and “All I Got and Need” by The Crawdiddies, this is continues his growth as an engineer. The tracking has exceptional body and character, and the blend and panning of the instrumentals is subtle and tasteful. It is warm and rich, and it perfectly complements the content of the songs themselves. Half of the album was recorded in Warsaw, and the other half was recorded in a cabin in Maine. Other than the natural sounds from the cabin, it’s impossible to tell a difference in the recording.
Ok, you’ve been patient. Here’s the album.
The album is a perfect mix of traditional, originals, and a couple covered tunes. This album feels curated, a distilled musical version of Benny Blue. The originals (the first, a couple in the middle, and second-to-last tunes) bracket the rest of the material well, and add touchstones if one were to listen to this all the way through; a recommendation for any album, but this one in particular.
Maddy-O. It’s based on an old Irish tune, “Whiskey In a Jar.” If there are any Metallica fans, yes, it’s the same original tune. The melody is classic, and it’s a tight, mid-tempo two-step. It gives just enough room for Ben (and Sperber harmonizing along) to phrase the words, which tell the story of a friend of the narrator, “Maddy,” who continually relies on the narrator for help and caring, but eventually “drifts out too far” through the “boozing.” It’s a sad that inspires the feeling of pity who continually lets the narrator down. A solid and strong choice to start the album, with great verses and a catchy chorus.
The Death of John Henry. This classic tale about the railroad man John Henry, who defeated the steam drill that would take the work of him and his friends, but he died with his hammer in his hand. A classic tale of the daunting fight of man vs. machinery. The narrative instead starts with people hearing of John Henry’s death, moves to his funeral, then the narrative switches back to the lead-up and on to the iconic climatic scene. This tunes combines the main motif of John Henry playing against the railroad rhythm of the drums (with Taj Mahal inspired 3-2 clave accents), with a lush and active texture, beautifully accented with a fuzzy distorted sound of the resonator banjo and its natural sound. Ben owns this tune; you’d believe he was the one who wrote this gem.
Flowers on the Wall. This is a cover of a more modern tune (relatively speaking anyway), but Ben brings his classic folk flair. This tune has some of the vocal harmony of the original Statler Brothers version, but front and center is Ben’s delivery. Instead of the original, which features a lot of texture changes, this version is more centered to great effect. It accentuates the lyrics, which tell an ironic tale about the narrator discussing how full his empty life is without his lover. G. Elwyn’s slide work almost steals the show; this is mastery at work. The counter melodies are incredible, and his articulation is amazing. Another great full band tune.
Soldier’s Joy. Here, the album a switch from the full band to a beautiful duet. Simply clawhammer banjo and fiddle, this down to earth melody sounds homey and warm. Melodies and rhythms intertwine expertly, but it still feels like a perfect simple tune. It’s also another great example of Ben on the fiddle.
Lonesome Hill. This ballad tells a tale of time and brotherhood. Only fitting that Ben’s musical brother, Matty Bleu, sings along with beautiful and rich harmonies. The fingerpicked low line is tastefully swaying, and is a great underpinning to the melody. It’s beautifully picturesque; it sounds as though this tune was written on Mt. Hope itself.
Cluck Old Hen. After the previous two tracks, it was a pleasant surprise hearing a brisk fiddle tune. It’s a duet between the banjo and Charlie Bleu’s fiddle, and in continuing the picturesque theme, it conjures an image of dancing around a fire. Contrasting A & B section makes this tune a treat. But ending this tune is a smooth transition into wind chimes, “perfectly tuned in the key of C…”
The Porcupine. This beautiful tune starts with those wind chimes, and slowly drifts into a fingerpicked guitar intro with a soft and sweet melody. This sad song tells the story of a porcupine who is isolated and ostracized by the other creatures of the woods because of his needles. With just his guitar and the chimes for accompaniment, Ben extends the story into an allegory about homelessness, and how everyone “is a creature like you and need.” This gem is a heartfelt and earnest original showing that sometimes the warmest people can also be the most prickly. It’s hard to get through this tune for the first time without a dry eye.
Fall On My Knees. The chimes fade back in this time, aided by the sound of a babbling creek. The full band comes back in for this tune for a sweet and simple fiddle tune. The groove is measured, but the melody is sweet and simple. Another great tune that one would hear played by a bunch of friends around a campfire.
Serenity Song. Fingerpicking guitar intro, then the banjo comes in playing a loose version of the melody, along with Ben’s signature huge accented sound. “Serenity Song” teaches us that ultimately, as much as try, we can’t change what’s around us. We must simply be, and live our lives. This is a beautiful and touching tune. A gorgeous melody, and the melodic interplay between the banjo and slide guitar is an incredible texture. This is another one that will make you misty.
Five Miles from Town. A fitting end to this wonderful album; a great fiddle tune with banjo, guitar, and bass. It’s syncopated groove mimics at the 3-2 clave, and it’s a great dance tune to end on a warm note. When the final sustained note from the fiddle decays, it feels like a story has been told to its completion.
Great job, Ben.
- Maddy-O (Haravitch)
- The Death of Johnny Henry (traditional)
- Flowers on the Wall (Lewis Dewitt)
- Soldier’s Joy (traditional)
- Lonesome Hill (Haravitch)
- Cluck Old Hen (traditional)
- The Porcupine (Haravitch)
- Fall on My Knees (traditional)
- Serenity Song (Haravitch)
- Five Miles From Town (traditional)
*all quotes taken from Ben Haravitch’s appearance on the Rochester Indie Musician Spotlight.